Read a couple of fascinating articles recently on the differences between US and China work cultures.

The first was not really an article so much at all, but rather, a graphic depiction (put together by Christina Larson) of the results of global study of workplace cultures undertaken by Steelcase, a leading US-based office furniture company.  As I am certain that any attempt on my part to summarize this article, entitled, Office Cultures: A Global Guide, will fall woefully short of either doing it justice or conveying critical information, I instead strongly urge you to look at the article yourself and even go here to read the study.   I will note, however, that I have a lot of experience in working with companies from Germany, China, Russia and the United States and my experiences jibe pretty much exactly with the findings.

What the study shows is that American workers (workers is very broadly defined) and Chinese workers (same definition for workers) are very very different.  Like Mars and Venus different.  Maybe even more so.  Absolutely fascinating stuff.

The other article is over at the Atlas-China blog on the value of intercultural skills in the workplace, entitled, “Effective American-Chinese Intercultural Communication in the Workplace” [link no longer exists] and it starts out  discussing a recent survey on “Culture at Work” by Ipsos Public Affairs, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the British Council in which employers “globally ranked ‘demonstrates respect for others’ and ‘builds trust’ as the top two most important skills — higher than ‘qualifications related to the job’ and any other surveyed technical skills.”  

The Atlas post then sets out the following four methods to ameliorate Chinese-American cultural differences and to facilitate “effective intercultural communication in the workplace” and thereby develop respect and trust among employees.

  • Stop, Ask, and Listen When speaking with your Chinese colleagues, try to avoid letting your tendency toward expression overshadow theirs. Inquire about their opinions before expressing yours, and make sure to listen and give them time to answer at their own pace. Not only will doing so help you get to know your colleagues better and understand their perspective on projects you share at work, but it will also show them that you care about their opinion and want to take the time to understand it. This show of respect will help build trust going forward.
  • Context Matters – To effectively listen to colleagues, it is also important to determine in what context your colleagues are most comfortable speaking. If asking a question in one context (such as in a meeting or lunch where other colleagues are present) does not elicit the kind of openness that you hope for, try again in another context (such as a one-on-one chat or private lunch). Because Chinese culture places great importance on group harmony and face, the more colleagues participating in a discussion, the more likely your Chinese colleagues will defer to others (especially those of higher rank) and not say what they truly think. 
  • Resist Making AssumptionsIn some situations, personal, social, or political dynamics that you aren’t aware of may come into play, and asking simple, polite questions can help clarify things. For example, one day I was working on a small project with a colleague who seemed especially eager to finish and leave the office. I was a little frustrated by this, because we had to turn in the finished project before we left that day. I felt like I was being rushed and that my colleague wasn’t committed enough to doing a good job. Finally I asked my colleague if she had plans after work, and she told me that actually she had to catch her carpool home soon, otherwise it would take her two hours to get home by bus — a circumstance quite common in China’s enormous, congested cities. I immediately felt like a jerk for the assumptions I had made, especially considering that I was lucky enough to live within walking distance of the office. Armed with the information I learned from asking a simple question, on future projects I was better able to budget the time I spent working with this colleague so that I didn’t feel rushed and so she didn’t miss her carpool.
  • Ask Questions…But Not Too Many!While in many cases asking questions and listening can be crucial to effective American-Chinese intercultural communication in the workplace, it is possible to ask too many questions or ask them in inappropriate circumstances. Once I went to one of my Chinese colleagues to ask questions regarding a work-related topic in her area of expertise. After several questions, she seemed to become a little defensive, asking me why I was so curious to know all of these details that didn’t seem very relevant. I realized that rather than seeing my many questions as sign of interest in and respect for her expertise, she might have felt that I doubted the accuracy of her initial responses, or she may have been embarrassed that she couldn’t answer every single question.

I have made every single mistake referred to above and though I would not go so far as to say (à la Paula Deen) that “If there’s anyone out there that has never said something that they wished they could take back, if you’re out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me,” I would guess that I do not stand alone on this.

Or do I?

What do you think?

Co-blogger Steve Dickinson has been speaking of late at various embassies and chambers of commerce in Beijing regarding China’s Twelfth Five Year Plan. Steve will be speaking on this again at the Swedish Chamber in April. The following is the outline Steve has been using.

A major task for this year is the adoption of a 12th Five Year Plan by the National People’s Congress. This plan will be adopted during the March meetings of the National People’s Congress and the CPC. Guidance for the plan was adopted by the CPC last October in two critical documents: 

The Opinion of the CPC Central Committee on Establishing the 12th Five Year Plan (中共中央关于制定国民经济和社会发展第十二个五年规划的建议) (the Opinion) adopted on October 18, 2010

Explanation of the Opinion (央关于制定国民经济和社会发展第十二个五年规划的建议的说明) authored by Wen Jiabao and presented to the CPC Central Committee on October 15, 2010.

This preliminary review is based on those documents and on government and research institutes that have put out papers in response to those documents.

I. China’s Ten Major Challenges

The goal of the Chinese regulators is for China to become a moderately prosperous country by 2020. The current five year period will be critical in meeting that goal. China has recently reached a level where its per capita GDP equals $US4,000. Its goal is to achieve a $US10,000 per capita GDP by the year 2020. This is a critical transition. It is generally believed to be relatively easy for a country to achieve the $4,000 number. It is common, however, for countries to stall out in GDP growth and never achieve the $10,000 goal. 

The goal of the 12th Five Year plan is to prevent China’s growth from stalling. In the Opinion, the CPC identifies 10 factors that threaten the continued development of the Chinese economy:

  1. Resource constraints: energy and raw materials.
  2. Mismatch in investment and imbalance in consumption.
  3. Income disparity.
  4. Weakness in capacity for domestic innovation.
  5. Production structure is not rational: too much heavy industry, not enough service.
  6. Agriculture foundation is thin and weak.
  7. Urban/rural development is not coordinated.
  8. Employment system is imbalanced.
  9. Social contradictions are progressively more apparent.
  10. Obstacles to scientific development continue to exist and are difficult to remove.

II. The Theoretical Solution

Before discussing the concrete outline of the plan, the Party sets out the theoretical approach that will serve as the guide:

A. The Main Theme: Scientific Development

  • “During the period of the 12th Five Year Plan, economic development remains the key to resolution of all problems.” (Wen Jiabao, quoting from the Opinion)
  • Development must be “scientific,” practical (unconstrained by ideology), human centered, and sustainable.

B. The Main Line: “China must rapidly engage in a complete transformation of its form of economic development.”

It cannot be stressed sufficiently how radical is the proposed remedy. The idea is not to refine the current system, but to completely transform the current system in the brief period of five years. This is a bold goal.

The focus of transformation is as follows:

1. From export led consumption to domestic led consumption.

  • From excessive reliance on exports to balance between export, import and domestic consumption.
  • From reliance on foreign technology to reliance on domestic innovation.
  • From reliance on “old” energy and materials and industries to creation of a low-carbon /new-materials based economy.

III. Ten Point Outline of the 12th Five Year Plan

A. In order to address the 10 challenges, and in accordance with the theoretical approach, the CPC proposes that the 12th Five Year Plan focus on 10 major areas, as follows:

1. Expand domestic consumption while maintaining stable economic development.

  • Unleash domestic consumption This will be done through the measures at item seven below.
  • Coordinate consumption, investment and export to create a balanced economy.

2. Modernize agriculture to create the new socialist rural village. .

  • Modernize agriculture through mechanization and measures that allow larger farms.
  • Invest in agriculture infrastructure, especially in waterworks.
  • Create non-agricultural rural employment.
  • Improve legal and financial development mechanisms.
  • Improve agricultural service business in areas such as wholesaling, warehousing, processing, transportation and marketing.

3. Develop a modern, balanced industrial and trade structure.

  • Develop service trade. Services currently contribute to less than 40% of GDP. The goal is to raise this number to 70% or higher.
  • Develop modern energy and integrated logistics.
  • Develop marine resources.

4. Advance the integration between regions and encourage stable urbanization.

  • Combat regional disparities.
  • Eliminate the urban/rural distinction. Cities at the second tier and lower must accept rural migrants. The goal is to provide for industrial/service employment for agricultural laborers in areas close to their current residence. This will be done to avoid a mass migration of rural residents into the tier one cities.

5. Promote energy saving and environmental protection.

Currently, for every 1% increase in GDP, China’s energy use increases by 1% or more. If this rate continues, China will need to increase its energy consumption by 2.5 times to achieve its 2020 economic goal. To put this into perspective, this would mean increasing the current consumption of coal from the current 3.6 billion tons per year to an astronomical 7.9 billion tons a year. No one in China thinks this can be done. One major way to reduce the amount of energy required for the Chinese economy is to implement energy saving practices throughout the economy. A second way to reduce is to shift from hydrocarbon based energy to alternative energy sources. The new plan advocates an all out program in this area.

6. Create an innovation driven society by encouraging education and training of the workforce.

The plan seeks to shift China from its role as the factory of the world to a new role as a technological innovator for the world. There are two components to this approach:

  • China will need to become a domestic innovator in all areas of current modern technology, with an emphasis on practical industrial applications.
  • Where China is not capable of domestic innovation, China will continue to import technology from advanced economies. However, China will seek to actively domesticate that technology through a program of “assimilate and re-invent.” The recent program for production in engines for high speed rail is offered as an example of the “assimilate and re-invent” approach.

7. Establish a comprehensive public social welfare system.

In order to meet the goal of unleashing domestic consumption, China has to move to a policy that puts more disposable income in the hands of its citizens. The plan proposed the following approach:

a. Labor and employment

China must provide jobs for a growing workforce. There are two key areas:

— It is estimated that over the next ten years, 200 million persons will be shifted from agricultural labor to urban industrial/service labor. Jobs for these persons consistent with their training must be provided.

— Currently, China’s colleges produce far more graduates than the economy can absorb. Entry level jobs for college and technical school graduates must be provided. Education must also be adjusted to accord with the realities of the job market.

b. Wages

Chinese wage are abnormally low. Most planners are pushing for tripling of the average wage for factory workers during this 5 year plan.

c. Provide comprehensive government benefit programs, especially retirement pensions.

d. Provide government funded medical services with comprehensive basic coverage by the end of 2011.

e. Maintain active population control.

It is interesting to note that two major issues are not effectively considered in the plan: the first is the cost of housing and the second is the cost of high school and college education. Though there has been some discussion of constructing low income housing, the measures proposed will do little or nothing to address the problem of affordable housing in China’s major cities.

8. Encourage cultural production in order to increase China’s “soft power”.

China will seek to make its case for the world to avoid misunderstanding China’s goals and its role within the world economy.

9. Increase the pace of reform of the economy.

  • Financial market reform, especially the RMB.
  • Energy price reform and price reform of other economic inputs (raw materials).

10. Continue with liberalization and “opening-up” to the outside, but on a new track.

  • Shift from export only to a balance between export and import.
  • Shift from inbound investment only to a balance between inbound and outbound investment. China will continue with its “going out” policy.
  • Actively participate in international economic governance.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal Real Time Blog, in its post, “National People’s Congress: Not Just a Rubber Stamp Session” and Christina Larson of Foreign Policy in her post, “What will be in China’s next Five Year Plan?” both cite to our post and then do an excellent job providing additional analysis of what we should be expecting from the Plan.